Apple’s iTunes Radio: What can we expect?

By Jason Bookman

Apple is a company that has been in the news a lot recently. Between it’s patent lawsuits against Samsung (and others) to the release of the iPhone 5 and iPad mini, and the backlash against iOS 6 and the flawed Apple Maps app, Apple always manages to stay in the headlines. But with a company that has a flair for publicity and a history for showing up their competition at their own game, you never really know what to expect.

Rumors have been circulating that Apple is hard at work on a new online streaming service to rival companies like Pandora, Spotify Radio, and iHeartRadio. Apple has a lot to contend with that’s already out in the marketplace, but the evidence exists to show that they may have a solid offering on their hands. Here’s what that might look like:

Apple’s biggest advantage for an undertaking like this is the infrastructure of users that they already have in place via the iPhone, iPad, and iPod, as well as the already widely used iTunes music player needed to work with all of those devices. It’s highly unlikely that Apple will use a web-app for their streaming service like Pandora or Rdio because of these devices and their app-based infrastructure. The number of people who already use iTunes either as a music player or as a database for their Apple mobile device make it pretty easy to speculate Apple’s streaming service will also be run as part of iTunes. Apple already has a dedicated app for their mobile iTunes store that is specifically geared towards purchases, it’s highly likely that Apple’s streaming service would have a dedicated mobile app as well.

The design front is another place that will likely come under heavy scrutiny from the general public who have gotten more dissatisfied with the ‘carbon copy’ look of iOS 6. Under late CEO Steve Jobs and former head of iOS development Scott Forstall, Apple’s app design favored a trend called skeuomorphism, or digital applications designed to look their real life counterpart. This design trend is the reason that apps like Newsstand looks like a wooden magazine rack, iBooks and iCal have animated page turns when you move from page to page, Game Center resembles a casino table to launch games, and Podcasts features an animated reel-to-reel tape machine to show playback. This design principle has been one of the recently focused critiques of Apple. Just imagine, an iOS ghetto-blaster boombox from the 90s as the Apple Radio mobile app where every button works, but you still have to hit the antennae to get a good signal. Probably won’t draw in many fans. However, in the backlash aimed at the iOS 6 Maps app, Apple fired Forstall and put Jony Ive, the lead designer of all Apple hardware from the late 90s to the present, in charge of the mobile development. Ive is not a fan of skeuomorphic design, so we should hopefully expect the iTunes Radio mobile app to have a clean and very functional interface that goes along with the already clean and functional mobile Music app.

One thing that seems overwhelmingly apparent is that Apple’s radio service will not appear on any non-Apple platform. Apple’s iTunes mobile music store is only available on iOS devices and does not work on any other platform. Android has it’s own music purchasing service in the Amazon music store and Windows just rolled out Xbox Music. Apple has historically used one or more of their products as leverage to lure customers into the rest of their product line, ie: using iTunes and the iPod to entice future iPhone and Mac owners. It’s highly unlikely that outside of streaming through iTunes on an Windows machine that Apple’s streaming service will be available on a non-Apple platform.

While Pandora has their “Music Genome Project,” Apple already has in place a recommendation engine that will most likely be adapted into their radio app: Apple Genius. Genius already is able to construct playlists based on songs in your iTunes library, recommend music in the iTunes store, and recommend apps in the App Store. Whether or not the particular algorithm is used, Apple will most likely use a modified version of their Genius algorithm for playlist generation to create an order for songs to stream in, similar to Pandora’s proprietary Music Genome Project.

These examples gathered from the infrastructure Apple already has in place show great potential to make a killing on the mobile streaming music front. We could very easily see a version of Apple Radio bundled with the new version of iOS 6.1 that is due to come out in the coming months that has a dedicated app, is run by Genius, and streams music to your mobile device or iTunes desktop player.